“The fae are a mess,” he sighs when I finish. “Which is sad, because they have such fascinating magic and traditions. I hear that some of the rituals they perform to charge their ritumancy can take days at a time. Sometimes they hunt for years to get all the items in place for their rituals. And the rituals themselves are filled with dancing, meditation, or sometimes even blood sport.”
I don’t want to think about blood. “I know how the elves love tradition,” I say, trying to force the thought away.
Willow chuckles as he reaches across the laboratory table and squeezes my hand. “I’m glad you’re all right though.”
“Me too. But I’m afraid I might have landed Rinni in a heap of trouble.”
“If anyone will be all right, it’s Rinni. There is no chance from here to the Veil that Eldas will ever punish Rinni.”
I’m taken back to that secret room overlooking the throne room, Rinni’s hand on Eldas’s cheek. Thanks to the journals, I’ve confirmed what Harrow said—the Elf Kings take lovers. The thought gives birth to a question, one I already know I need to put to rest.
“What is Eldas’s and Rinni’s relationship?” I gather my bravery to ask.
“Rinni is his right hand and the general of the army of Lafaire.”
“And here she is, wasting time protecting me.”
Willow flicks my nose and grins. I can’t help but smile. “Stop that. You’re the Human Queen. Protecting you is anything but a waste of time. More like the highest honor.”
I sigh and rephrase my earlier question. “Are Eldas and Rinni…intimate?”
Willow blinks several times over. I can tell he’s instantly uncomfortable. “Luella, that’s not something you ask about the Elf King.”
“Think of me as a woman asking about the man she’s married to, then.”
“I really don’t know anything. I don’t pry into royal affairs. You’d have to ask one of them. It’s not my place.”
I drum my fingers against the table in thought. “You know, that’s an excellent idea, Willow. I think I’ll go to Rinni when we’re done here.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Willow scratches his scalp nervously. “Fine, but if you’re going, we’re making citrus tarts first.”
“They’re Rinni’s favorite.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I’ve been in the castle practically since I was born. I was up here with Poppy, studying how to be the next castle healer. But…I suppose I heard some things about the few others I was in the castle with.” He shrugs.
I barely resist pointing out that if he heard “some things” he likely heard the truth about Rinni and Eldas. But I resist. Willow is right, it’s not his place to say. And some things are best asked at the source.
At the end of the day Willow takes me and a small box of lemon and orange tarts that we spent the afternoon making down to Rinni’s room. There’s also a small pouch of treats for Hook that Willow insisted on putting together. We’ll see if Hook likes them later. I hope they set my wolf right as rain.
We come to a stop at Rinni’s door, I take a breath, and knock.
“Yes?” Rinni opens the door. She has a smock tied around her waist. Her usual armor and regalia have been traded for loose-fitting, paint-stained clothing. The look suits her, I think. Her eyes dart between Willow and me. “What’re you doing here?”
“She insisted,” Willow says quickly.
“We need to talk.” I barge in without her permission.
“All right…” Rinni exchanges one last glance with Willow before shutting the door. “What do you need of me, Your Majesty?”
“I want to talk about—” Words fail me as I land on the portrait she’s working on. A familiar pair of warm eyes look back at me with a small, enigmatic smile. The detail is incredible. Though the portrait quickly becomes unfinished as the paint bleeds out from the subject’s face—my face. “You’re painting…me?”
“Yes.” Rinni wipes her hands on a rag. “It was commissioned.”
“Who do you think?” Rinni clears her throat and coaxes the colloquial tone back to formal. “I meant to say, Your Majesty, that the Elf King himself commissioned this piece.”
Eldas wants a portrait of me? For what purpose? I look between Rinni and the painting. One thing at a time. I hold out the box of tarts.
“Here, a peace offering and an apology.”
“What is it?” Rinni takes the box skeptically. As soon as she opens it she growls, “That Willow.”
“He said you liked citrus tarts,” I say hastily.
“Yes. I love them.” Yet she looks so grumpy as she says it. Rinni pushes some paints aside on her table and sets the box down, shoving a tart in her mouth. “I just hate that he shared with you my one weakness.”
I laugh. “Well, now that I have you in a vulnerable state. Rinni, I really am sorry.”
She sighs over her second tart. “Fine, I accept your apology.”
“Thank you.” I glance back at the painting, thinking of the other reason why I came. If there was anything between Eldas and Rinni, then surely he wouldn’t ask her to paint a portrait of me. That’d just be cruel. “Are we friends again?”
“Oh, very well,” she says dramatically. I crack a smile. “I guess we’re friends.”
“Good, because there’s something I want to ask you.”
“Go on, you have five tarts left before my guard is up again.”
“I wanted to talk about Eldas.”
Rinni’s hands freeze. So much for five more tarts. “What about him?”
“Are you and he romantically involved?” I ask directly. Rinni doesn’t look at me and my nerves go wild. “Because, if you are, I understand. Or if you’re not but you have feelings toward him, I would like to know. I’m not going to get in your way.”
“You’re his wife,” she says delicately, still not looking at me.
“Yes, and we’re anything but a normal couple.” I sigh. There’s the ghost of pain in my stomach. It’s trying to stamp out a hope I didn’t know had begun to sprout. “I know the Elf King takes lovers. It only makes sense, really. Our circumstances aren’t conducive to companionship.”
“Luella, I’m not going to get in the way of anything growing between you two.” Rinni looks up with a small smile. “We’re not lovers. And I have no interest in ever being Eldas’s lover.”
“You’re not?” I ask slowly. “But you two seem… There’s…” I fumble over my words as I discover I might have been hoping they were. I might have been looking for a reason to stamp out this frustration that’s begun budding up every time I’m around Eldas. “There’s clearly a connection between you two.”
“There is.” I appreciate Rinni’s lack of denial. “We’ve grown up together. We’re about the same age. And I’m not sure if you know…but the crown prince isn’t allowed to leave the castle while his father is alive. So he never left this castle as a child. Then, he made the choice to continue his seclusion to be coronated alongside you. He just didn’t expect it to take a year…”
I know about Eldas’s choice to stay secluded. “Why can the crown prince not leave while his father is alive?”
“Because there is only ever one Elf King. And it keeps the transition of power—one reign to the next—tidy.”
I’m not sure if I agree with all that. “So he was kept in the castle, alone?”
“Yes…” Rinni briefly frowns. Not even the next tart can shake the expression from her. Even she, as someone who knows the traditions, clearly thinks that holding a young boy captive is a bit extreme. “As you can imagine, he didn’t have a lot of friends.”
“It shows.” The words slip through my lips and I feel a twinge of regret for them.
“Perhaps.” Rinni smiles thinly. “He didn’t have a lot of options for companionship and I was here all the time as my father was his father’s right hand. We became close.” Rinni folds her arms and leans against the back wall. She meets my eyes. “I suppose I should also just tell you that yes, at one point, we did explore a romantic relationship.”
“How long ago?”
Rinni thinks about this a moment. “Three, or four years ago? Looking back, I think he was panicked seeing the last Human Queen nearing the end of her life. More than just being grief-ridden…I believe he felt confined to his role and was rebelling in his own way against the idea of being married off. He was old enough to understand his fate and was losing Alice at the same time.”
I wonder if Eldas sees himself in me. If my rebellion against my fate is stirring up negative thoughts for him, or feelings of hopelessness. Perhaps the mere suggestion that there could be a way out is almost more painful than the acceptance he’s fallen into.
“He looked for comfort where he could find it and I was receptive. I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t spared more than one girlish thought about him and me up to that point. So, we made a clumsy attempt at it for a few months, only two or three, really. And before you ask, we didn’t do much more than kissing. Also, I’m not giving you any more details on our relationship. It’s over and done and he and I do not work together romantically. The colors are dry on that landscape of my life and I have no desire to go back to the canvas.”
“Fair,” I say. “Thank you for your honesty.”
“Of course, I’m in support of you both. Eldas and I are better off as friends and allies. But, if anything, the attempt at being lovers did make us closer. So you’re right in that there is a bond. There’s no other man I’d rather serve in brush or sword, or any other way…except for the bedroom.”